Are America's Best Days Behind Us?

The U.S. is used to being No. 1. But it's going to take a lot more than a few budget cuts and shifting resources to stay competitive in today's global arena. It's time to adopt a whole new way of thinking. Is America ready?

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Illustrations by Joe Magee for TIME

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So why are we tackling our economic problems in a manner that is shortsighted and wrong-footed? Because it is politically easy. The key to understanding the moves by both parties is that, for the most part, they are targeting programs that have neither a wide base of support nor influential interest groups behind them. (And that's precisely why they're not where the money is. The American political system is actually quite efficient. It distributes the big bucks to popular programs and powerful special interests.) And neither side will even talk about tax increases, though it is impossible to achieve long-term fiscal stability without them. Certain taxes — such as ones on carbon or gas — would have huge benefits beyond revenue, like energy efficiency.

It's not that our democracy doesn't work; it's that it works only too well. American politics is now hyperresponsive to constituents' interests. And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future. There are no lobbying groups for the next generation of industries, only for those companies that are here now with cash to spend. There are no special-interest groups for our children's economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now. The whole system is geared to preserve current subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes. That is why the federal government spends $4 on elderly people for every $1 it spends on those under 18. And when the time comes to make cuts, guess whose programs are first on the chopping board. That is a terrible sign of a society's priorities and outlook.

The Perils of Success
Why have our priorities become so mangled? Several decades ago, economist Mancur Olson wrote a book called The Rise and Decline of Nations. He was prompted by what he thought was a strange paradox after World War II. Britain, having won the war, slipped into deep stagnation, while Germany, the loser, grew powerfully year after year. Britain's fall was even more perplexing considering that it was the creator of the Industrial Revolution and was the world's original economic superpower.

Olson concluded that, paradoxically, it was success that hurt Britain, while failure helped Germany. British society grew comfortable, complacent and rigid, and its economic and political arrangements became ever more elaborate and costly, focused on distribution rather than growth. Labor unions, the welfare state, protectionist policies and massive borrowing all shielded Britain from the new international competition. The system became sclerotic, and over time, the economic engine of the world turned creaky and sluggish.

Germany, by contrast, was almost entirely destroyed by World War II. That gave it a chance not just to rebuild its physical infrastructure but also to revise its antiquated arrangements and institutions — the political system, the guilds, the economy — with a more modern frame of mind. Defeat made it possible to question everything and rebuild from scratch.

America's success has made it sclerotic. We have sat on top of the world for almost a century, and our repeated economic, political and military victories have made us quite sure that we are destined to be No. 1 forever. We have some advantages. Size matters: when crises come, they do not overwhelm a country as big as the U.S. When the financial crisis hit nations such as Greece and Ireland, it dwarfed them. In the U.S., the problems occurred within the context of a $15 trillion economy and in a country that still has the trust of the world. Over the past three years, in the wake of the financial crisis, U.S. borrowing costs have gone down, not up.

This is a powerful affirmation of America's strengths, but the problem is that they ensure that the U.S. will not really face up to its challenges. We adjust to the crisis of the moment and move on, but the underlying cancer continues to grow, eating away at the system.

A crucial aspect of beginning to turn things around would be for the U.S. to make an honest accounting of where it stands and what it can learn from other countries. This kind of benchmarking is common among businesses but is sacrilege for the country as a whole. Any politician who dares suggest that the U.S. can learn from — let alone copy — other countries is likely to be denounced instantly. If someone points out that Europe gets better health care at half the cost, that's dangerously socialist thinking. If a business leader notes that tax rates in much of the industrialized world are lower and that there are far fewer loopholes than in the U.S., he is brushed aside as trying to impoverish American workers. If a commentator says — correctly — that social mobility from one generation to the next is greater in many European nations than in the U.S., he is laughed at. Yet several studies, the most recent from the OECD last year, have found that the average American has a much lower chance of moving out of his parents' income bracket than do people in places like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Canada.

And it's not just politicians and business leaders. It's all of us. Americans simply don't care much, know much or want to learn much about the outside world. We think of America as a globalized society because it has been at the center of the forces of globalization. But actually, the American economy is quite insular; exports account for only about 10% of it. Compare that with the many European countries where half the economy is trade-related, and you can understand why those societies seem more geared to international standards and competition. And that's the key to a competitive future for the U.S. If Olson is right in saying successful societies get sclerotic, the solution is to stay flexible. That means being able to start and shut down companies and hire and fire people. But it also means having a government that can help build out new technologies and infrastructure, that invests in the future and that can eliminate programs that stop working. When Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal, he spoke of the need for "bold, persistent experimentation," and he shut down programs when it was clear they didn't work. Today, every government program and subsidy seems eternal.

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